Tag Archives: Nicaragua

Black in black

We arrived back into León and went straight back to ViaVia. The recent good weather had made it possible for us to reconsider volcano boarding. So we got settled in & went across the road to book ourselves in for the next day. I was excited but secretly terrified.

The next morning, while I waited for Skye – a muscular dude with silky skin; clean, neat dreads and an amiable demeanour came over to introduce himself in Spanish. I told him what I tell everyone else, “Mi Español is terrible!” We switched to English & got chatting. I learnt he was part-Nicaraguan and had spent the better part of his life in NYC. He was an articulate documentary-maker with some interesting things to say. One of his films was about the Black Christ and the other was on the subject of young Nicaraguan baseball players who get screwed over financially for their talent.

Anthony told me he would be our guide for the day. We met the others in our group as we climbed up into a bright orange army truck. There was a weekend warrior from Melbourne, who was travelling around Central America at breakneck speed (basically collecting passport stamps). I think he said he’d done 6 countries in 2 weeks. And 2 friendly and fit-looking snowboarding Canadian girls. The three of them were all in their mid 20s.

Cerro Negro is only 400m high but the ascent is steep and tough, especially on a stinking hot day. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua. The latest eruption happened in 1999. Since its birth in 1850, it has erupted approximately 23 times. It’s approximately a 45 minute hike up black chunky volcanic rocks which degenerate into a fine black sand, making it trickier to climb the higher you go.

Skye and I had to make several stops on the way up. She has a heart condition which means she needs to take it easy and ensure her heart rate doesn’t escalate too high, too fast. Me? Well, since my last bootcamp session with Tobes just before my 40th birthday nearly a year ago – I must confess I’ve done very little strenuous exercise, so I’m a little out of shape.

Anthony was carrying Skye’s board and offered on many occasions to carry mine as well. But I had challenged myself to the whole shebang. And as tempting as it was, I was bloody determined to do it unassisted. We made it up. Quite a ways behind the others. But we did it!

Nicaragua really has stolen my heart in a very short space of time. Not least for the diversity in its geography. It’s just gorgeous. From the jewel-like Caribbean, sweeping tropical plains rise up to meet a chain of 13 volcanoes on the Pacific coast – making for a truly majestic landscape. And here I was, standing on top of one of those volcanoes.

About to do something that can only be described as Stupid.

We hopped into our big bright orange jumpsuits and put on out goggles. Anthony gave us a little bit of a background of how this stupidity all began.

Needless to say, it was an Aussie who came up with the bright idea. A Queenslander by the name of Darryn Webb who apparently tested a variety of methods of boarding the mountain: boogie boards, mattresses and even a fridge door.

Anthony briefed us on how to control the speed and the direction of the board. Which was really just a piece of MDF with a couple of strips of Formica on the underside, a little strip of timber acrossways to rest our feet upon, and a waterski rope handle.

Bigfoot uses a police speed gun to clock people’s speeds as they’re coming down the slippery sandy slope. The record is 82km / hour and is held by an English girl. The slowest person took 15 minutes to get down the hill. I personally wasn’t about speed. I just wanted to get down in one piece.

Given my inclination to fall over non-existent cracks in the footpath – I really am not the sort of person who should be hurtling herself off the side of a volcano on a tiny plank of wood. Don’t ask me why I keep putting myself in these situations. It’s probably got something to do with that other character who insists on getting riotously drunk before having to travel somewhere for 12 hours.

One of the gutsy little Canadian girls went down first and she was gunning it! From our vantage point it looked as though she had made it all the way down without a stack. The other Canadian girl went next and we saw her crash & burn several times.

I got on my board, sat down, and off I went! I could hear Anthony yelling at me, his voice fading fast, “LIFT YOUR FEET!” I think I literally went down braking the whole way. Every time I tried to lift my feet, in an attempt to pick up speed, I felt myself lose control of the board. I’d get scared and drop them back down again. I was collecting massive amounts of ash (not hot, thank fuck) between the board and under my legs and this was slowing me down even more. The rate I was going, there was no way on earth I was going to be falling off. That being said, volcanic sand was still flying everywhere and it was still a complete head rush.

I knew I was erring on the side of caution but I was still surprised when I got to the bottom and they told me i had clocked a god-almighty speed of 15km / hour. Just call me Speedy freakin Gonzales. I just laughed. It seriously felt like I was going at least 3 times that. There was a part of me that wanted to go back and do it all over again, this time really throwing caution to the wind.

Skye came down next. A wee bit faster and with a few tumbles thrown in for good measure.

Then it was the Weekend Warrior’s turn. He looked to be a moving at a pretty decent speed, when he had a nice looking stack about ½ way down. His board was a good few metres up the hill from where he had landed and so he started scrambling his way back up to retrieve it.

Meanwhile, Anthony had already started his mission and was tearing down the mountain at a rate of knots. He was heading straight for WW and we all stood at the bottom, thinking surely he had seen the WW and would divert his course any second now. Surely.

He didn’t. And he launched straight into the WW at full throttle. His board flew into the air. He somehow managed to somersaulted over the top of him, and collect him all at once. I saw a board fly into the air.

At the bottom there was a collective gasp, yelp, and cringe. The pair of them stood up almost immediately, so we figured it couldn’t have been too bad. They made it down without further incident. There was some blood but nothing was broken.

We got back to the hostel and celebrated our speeds and stacks with many many mojitos. So many in fact, that I was in bed by 7 o’clock that night. Note to self: Water not cocktails after strenuous exercise.

I woke up the next day feeling very bruised in more ways than one and so not up for a day of travel to the colonial town of Granada, where we would spend the next few days.

I came down a little ill for a couple of days, which may have tainted my views on the place. But to be honest, Granada has been one of my least favourite places. It’s a big dirty city, there’s a lot beggars and insofar as colonial cities go it hasn’t got a patch on my pretty Antigua, as far as I’m concerned.

The highlights for me included catching up with Dave & Suze. Skye & I had a few delicious healthy meals at a place called The Garden Cafe. I visited the museum and a few boutique galleries and talked with some local artists, which was cool. But that was about the size of it.

I was dead keen to get to Isla de Ometepe, which LP described as something out of a fairytale… an island set between “two volcanic peaks which rise from the hazy blue expanse of Cocibolca, ‘the Sweet Sea’ (Lago de Nicaragua), and form an hourglass of beaches and jungles cinched to a sinuous isthmus between them.”

Just what the doctor ordered.

Friday 28 October


Paradise by the dashboard lights

It wasn’t that far to where we wanted to go on the Peninsula, but it’s a little off the beaten path, so it ended up being a day for all types of transport to get there.

First, we caught your standard chicken bus back to León. These big old yellow US school buses still all have the original (read, un-serviced) parts including ridiculously uncomfortable seats which were designed for 7 year olds. Their one redeeming feature is truly godawful 80s music blaring from tinny sound systems.

We left our big packs at the Quetzal Trekkers base & grabbed a late brekky. We then jumped on the back of a truck with a tarp-covered tray & two bench seats. It reminded me of hanging off the back of a cable car in San Fran except there were A LOT more people and the driver was clearly starring in his own reality version of Grand Theft Auto. It’s a cheap thrill at just 3 cords (12 cents).

After that, we caught a microbus to Chinandega. These are just like your regular collectivos elsewhere in Central America except they do not stop every few miles to pick up twice as many people as the bus can fit. I have seen 9 people squished up into the front bit of one of these vehicles which normally seats 4. Nine. Sheer luxury to have just one person to a seat and no crotches or arses in our faces to deal with.

We then jumped in a ‘pedi cab’ which is a bicycle-driven tuk-tuk – except instead of sitting in a covered bench seat up the back, you sit in an uncovered bench seat up the front. For better clarity on your imminent death, I presume.

And finally we got on another chicken bus, which was delayed for quite a time while dozens of hawkers filed in through the front, and out through the back – selling all manner of things. Fried food. Cool drinks. Gum. Batteries. Phone chargers. Kitchen utensils. Machetes. Bras. I kid you not.

On the way back, we heard what sounded like a pig squealing in extreme pain. I thought we must have run over a stray one in the street but, no. The pig was on the roof of the bus and they were just belaying him down the ladder. As you do.

I love public transport here. It’s fucking mental.

So, the bus dropped us off to a place Skye had sourced, called Rancho Tranquilo in the tiny fishing village called Jiquillio, which is on the Cosigüina Peninsula (in the North West). Only a few hundred families live here in thatched roof huts with dirt floors. They do have electricity and cell service, but there’s no wifi or hot water. In fact, I haven’t had a hot shower since I left Guatemala a month ago.

It was a very simple set-up at Rancho Tranquilo: a couple of bamboo huts and a very basic dorm room, which Skye and I would have to ourselves. At the top end of the yard, there was a bar with picnic tables & benches and a raft of lie-down and sit-up hammocks.

The weather had come good for our arrival, and Skye & I were a bit excited about the prospect of doing more of what we’d been doing down south, but this time in the sunshine! The clean black beach was absolutely deserted. We set down our bags and immediately went for a body bash. The waves were just perfect. The sun was perfect. The water temperature was perfect. It was all perfect.

Back at the Rancho, we met one of the two other guests – both of whom had separately been there for two months.

Simone was an eccentric German with a sense of humour (!) I put her in her late 30s. A petite lady with a big-heart, she was taking a 3 month sabbatical to volunteer on a Tortuga rescue project. Evidently, she was a keen animal lover as when we met her she was wiping the secreting vagina of one of the many dogs who lived there. Most of the dogs seemed to have a medical issue of some sort. One appeared to have a goitre on the side of his neck. Another had a tongue that was permanently stuck out to the side. And apparently the dog Simone was tending to, had an infection. I love dogs but how one discovers this sort of thing unless they’re a vet, is beyond me.

That night, we enjoyed a simple vegetarian curry made by ‘Mummy’ and then went out walking with Simone on the beach to look for nesting turtles.

We didn’t find any. What we did find was an empty turtle’s nest and no sign of her tracks back to the beach. A sure sign that poachers had taken her. Very sad indeed.

It was just inspiring to meet someone so impassioned and learn a little more about these mesmerising creatures. 6 of the world’s 7 kinds of turtles live in Latin America. 3 have been found nesting on this one stretch of beach. A typical ‘clutch’ will range from 80-120 eggs. The obstacles are so numerous (eg, poachers, dogs, birds) for baby turtles that only about one in 1,000 will survive to become a grown-up turtle.

Turtles have existed for over 100 million years. All are in grave danger of extinction. I think sometimes, we forget that extinction means forever.

If you’ve never seen a turtle up close & personal, then I truly hope one day you do. These guys really know how to make a day feel super special. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s their gentle ways. Maybe it’s their ancient faces. Don’t know. Don’t care. I just know this features somewhere on the scale of Important Stuff.

What was also interesting to see was the beach transform from an undiscovered piece of paradise into something far more sinister. The moment it gets dark – this small community of people who would know each other very intimately, suddenly become suspicious strangers in the night.

The people on the beach at night can be divided into those who are hunting eggs to eat or sell on the black market. Or even worse, those who are after the turtles themselves for their meat and / or shells. Then there are those who are seeking out eggs to save and hand over to the rescue projects for a better chance of survival.
But who can tell the difference? Flashlights are quickly snapped off, and distances widen. Everyone is hesitant to talk to anyone in case they might recognise the voice, or the motive behind the voice. In the dark, I tried to guess who the good guys were & who the bad guys were.

The next day we were up early for another swim in that perfect sea, and we then we went & met Marlon and his daughter down by the river. I had read we could hire a dugout canoe & a local guide for a trip through the surrounding bird-filled estuaries and mangroves. I drowned myself in DEET (my new best friend since The Sandlfy Incident) and we set off in one very leaky dugout canoe made from one very old tree.

We were treated to spectacular views of the Volcán Cosigüina, which used to be the tallest volcano in Nicaragua until an eruption wiped out the apex. At one point, we stopped for a small hot climb to the top of a hill that afforded us amazing vistas of the surrounding waterways, the local villages and faraway volcanoes.

We were back in time for a pre-lunch swim and then more of Mummy’s delicious cooking. She had invited us to her home for a fish dinner that night which I was well excited about.

That afternoon we got to know the other guest: a gay boy who had changed his name from Michael to Sky (note, the absence of an ‘e’ for easy distinction from my travelling mate Skye). He was an Indian (feathers, not dots) who was just one year older than me but had clearly lived a far ‘richer’ life than I, in so many ways. He had been travelling through Latin America for 8 years. I asked him if he was an heiress. He told me his family owned a “small corporation”.

He arranged for a lady up the road to come & give us both manicures & pedicures. It cost just AUD$6. It became very clear to me during this time that the boy had ADHD. He just for the life of him, could not sit still.

He later told me he had spent more than ½ million dollars on rehab. Money that was NOT well spent, given he said he still liked a drink & whatnot. He was clearly keen for some drinking partners and generously offered to shout us our first bottle of rum. Who were we to say no. Sky was a big child, a bit scarred & scatty – but just gorgeous & loads of fun. He was one of those rare people who never have a bad word to say of anyone.

Tina, the trippy owner of the place came back in from town, with a bunch of big hippy hugs. She was from San Fran, in her late 40s, and I think it would be a fair guess to say she had probably spent a good portion of her life alternately smoking pot and doing lots of yoga. She immediately started drinking for Nicaragua and playing DJ from her little perch behind the bar. I must say, she had brilliant taste in music. She was a bit out there, but I instantly took a liking to her.

Her friend from up the road, an older man with the best bushranger’s beard I’ve seen in a long time, stopped in for a quick hello and to collect some stuff that Tina had picked up in town for him. Dennis looked as though he could have been a wanted man – but if he was, he certainly wasn’t worried anyone finding him. He was a still shining light in amongst all the mayhem that was starting to bubble up. He wisely left after just one drink.

Then young Elizabeth rolled in on her bicycle. She was working as a volunteer English teacher up the road. She was a bright bubbly thang and I have no idea what the fuck she was doing in this far-flung corner of Nicaragua.

Simone, the two Sky(e)s and I went to Mummy’s for dinner. We were followed by at least 4 of the dogs from Rancho Tranquilo, and were met by at least another 6 at Mummy’s. We were quickly introduced to the four girls of the family ranging from 11 months in age to 14 years old. They were a rambunctious lot, who took great interest in seeing the photos of themselves on my digital camera.

They had set up a plastic table for us in the dirt, turning Mummy’s open kitchen into a pop-up cafe. ½ dozen odd little piglets were noisily clamouring around their mother for some milk just metres away. I looked over just in time to see one little pig pissing in the dirt right in front of us. Noone else batted an eyelid. I was screaming with laughter.

The meal was one of the best I’ve had in Nicaragua (fancy Japanese not withstanding). A whole fish caught that very morning by Marlon, served with pinto gallo and a salsa-type salad. Sometimes simple is best, si?

We went back to the Rancho to find the girls totally trashed. I’m not sure what had happened in the short time we were away having dinner but we came home to carnage. Tina believed she had broken her toe (she hadn’t) and was crying. Elizabeth could barely stand. She was demanding we walked her home NOW. Sky thought there might have been a local party we could go to on the way home. And so off we all traipsed, with dogs in tow. Elizabeth ended up living miles away. The walk took us ages because she was all over the shop, we also had a bike and an incoming tide to contend with. We got there in the end. We decided to take the road back and had no joy in finding the party. We also got road-blocked by a big muddy pool. Luckily a truck passed us by. Skye flagged them down and we hopped in the back. They took us back to the Rancho.

By that time, i was absolutely knackered from all the excitement & was ready to call it a night. We had a little nightcap with Sky before hitting the hay.

The next morning over breakfast, Tina pulled out all stops to encourage us to stay another night, another week. Mummy even got in on the act. It was hard to leave as the weather was so damn good & the beach was so damn perfect… it’s so rare to get a little piece of paradise all to yourself. But on the other hand, Rancho Tranquilo was actually a bit of a madhouse & I could see myself getting sucked into its vortex & living out the rest of my days drinking myself into a an empty turtle’s nest and wiping dog vaginas.

It was definitely time to leave.

Why does it always rain on me?

When I was a kid I remember visiting Melaka (my mother’s home town) during the rainy season. In the late afternoon, the air would get thick, and a big fat drop of rain would go splat, right in front of me. Then there’d be another. And then another – this time smacking me on the face. I’d look up and the sky would be big and black and really mad. And all of a sudden everyone would quicken up, like someone had pressed the fast forward button. Mum would be yanking on my arm, hard, yelling at me to hurry up. The sky would split into two and all these sharp bits of rain would sting my skin. We were soaking by the time we got home. I loved all the excitement.

The rainy season in Central America goes from July through to September, give or take a month, depending on the region. Here in Nicaragua, October is the wettest month, probably due to the fact that it’s also hurricane season.

None of the countries I’ve visited are well equipped to receive the rain. The streets start flooding within minutes. Garbage gushes up from overflowing gutters. People start madly sweeping down the uneven footpaths.  Traffic gets even more lawless.  And anarchy reigns supreme.

And so there’s been a shedload of water of late. It chucked it down. For the whole 4 days we were in León.


So on Saturday, our first night – I found a vegetarian restaurant that supposedly did some good curries. Skye’s a pescetarian. And after 4 months of meat, rice & beans and plantains – I am really missing Asian flavours. We had an okay curry and a very salty chow mien. I would have been very unhappy with it back home. But you take what you can get, here.

After two days of being in transit, we were absolutely knackered – so we turned in early. We just took it easy over the next couple of days. Skye was still recuperating. I was just being lazy.

After 2 nights, we moved from the funeral parlour of a hostel we were staying at, to the far more atmospheric ViaVia a couple of blocks away. The front end of the hostel was a restaurant / bar which was frequented by locals as much as tourists. Behind the bar, was a lush tropical garden spotted with people dozing in hammocks and reading in rocking chairs. It was just lovely.

On Tuesday, we started the day at a French bakery around the corner. My croissant was perfectly crispy on the outside, and all fluffy & buttery on the inside … a truly simple pleasure that made me a very happy girl.

After running a few errands, we then set off to see the largest cathedral in all of Central America. It took more than 100 years to construct. The outside, blackened by years of grimey rain and city pollutants is a bit of eyesore, truth be told. But when you walk in – you are greeted by cool marbled floors, high vaulted ceilings, serenely sad statues, and imposing classical art in ornate golden frames…

We paid to access the cathedral’s roof via a skinny, dark & damp stairwell, to an old concrete expanse of gigantic active bell towers, larger than life statues (visible from the street below), perfectly formed concrete domes (the outties to the innies of the high vaulted ceilings below), and multiple levels with turreted walls.

The rain miraculously stopped for the time we were up there and so we were very fortunate to get amazing views of a fairly sprawling city, considering its relatively small population of 145k people. Beyond the city limits, we could see the Cordillera de los Maribios – a series of volcanoes to the noreast.

One of the reasons I had wanted to come here was to ‘surf’ one of those volcanoes. The first time I had heard you could do this, was when I stumbled upon a blogpost, while doing some preliminary reading about Nicaragua. Basically you haul your arse up an active volcano, they stick you in a space suit and off you go hurtling down course sandy black ash on a modified snowboard. People have been clocked doing close to 80km / hour. I thought that it sounded way fun. And terrifying.

Nursing a sizeable gash on my left knee that was still bleeding and seeping after a good 3 days (I had come-a-gutsa at the Brewery. While sober.) – I admit to feeling pretty nervous about the whole boarding thing. So i was very relieved to hear a few different people saying how it was a bit rubbish at the moment due to the heavy rains. That was enough for me to decide I wouldn’t do it here & now. Maybe another opportunity would present itself elsewhere. There’s plenty of volcanoes in these parts.

Later that afternoon, I took Skye to the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián – a gallery that LP deems ‘Nicaragua’s finest by a huge margin’. It is home to a lot of interesting contemporary works by Latin American artists. I loved it. I particularly dug the pieces by Nahum Flores. We spent a good couple of hours there and then went back to our hostel.

Sparkles had messaged me saying he was going to be in town that night. We met at ViaVia & caught up over drinks. His life had taken some interesting turns, to say the least. Among the stories he had to share with us, was how he’d fallen into diplomatic circles and was staying as a guest at an ambassador’s place, complete with staff, in Managua. He had come in a hire car. I teased him mercilessly about being a flashpacker and he took it on the chin with his usual good sense of humour.

The three of us fell into a restaurant called Manhattan which ended up being one of the best meals we’ve had in all of Central America. Proper Japanese! I was absolutely beside myself. The three of us scoffed down mountains of fresh sushi rolls of every description, some perfectly battered tempura vegetables, and a few yakitori sticks to boot.

The next day Sparkles went & did a couple of the sites. Skye and I waited for him in a cafe while it rained and rained and rained. We had convinced him to join us at the beach for a night and so off we all went in his lovely hire car. The car was a very basic Toyota Yaris and had done 65,000 clicks – but it felt like a goddamn limousine to Skye and I.

None of us really bothered to firm up a best plan of attack for get out of town & to the beach … and so naturally, we ended up heading in a mostly wrong direction. But we quickly worked out it was rectifiable in that we could take a right and we would be heading in the general direction of the coast. And so, at my behest, we took that right. My thinking being, we could get to the coast then follow the coastline to get to Las Peñitas. Works in Australia.

Anyways, it turns out the road we took wasn’t a proper road. And it wasn’t a short road. And it wasn’t a dry road.

It wasn’t too long before we came upon our first muddy puddle.

I did my best not to back seat drive as Sparkles plunged the car into muddy pool after muddy pool that got larger and deeper and at times, looked like they were going to engulf the tiny Yaris.

Mike had morphed from a self-styled James Bond, mixing with Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie, into the intrepid leader of Sparkle’s Safaris.

At one point, Skye & he got out of the car to test the depth of a particularly big muddy pool with rocks and sticks (all very scientific). I watched from the safety of the car.

We were discussing the feasibility of navigating through the muddy pool when a man driving a horse-drawn buggy stopped to encourage us to follow him on through the big muddy pool.

I just kept having flashbacks of having to push a van out of freezing cold, knee-deep, schleppy mud at Glastonbury and not really loving that experience very much at all.

The ‘road’ worsened.

We passed by a big salt factory called Salines Grandes. This is a miniscule dot in the guidebooks and is virtually non-existent on the tourist maps. For. A. Reason.

No one goes to Salines Grande.

Except for the workers who live in a shanty town of homes constructed from sticks and industrial black plastic, and very little else. I’d never seen anything quite like it.

This was so far off the beaten path, all we saw were skinny cows. A couple of fat boars. Some chickens. Lots of skanky dogs. A couple of jeep collectivos. A few dirt bikes. Lots of walkers. And no other cars.

Why? Because the road we took wasn’t a proper goddamn road.

We persisted and eventually hit a junction that I believed would take us to the beach. However, we would never find out. The rest of the road looked like a river.

Pissing ourselves laughing, we decided to turn back. All in all, this little ‘detour’ took us 2 hours. The beach is 19km from where we started.

We headed back to León, and started again.

Skye found the right road to take us there, and within 12 minutes – we were checked in to the very simple Quetzal Trekkers hostel with front row views to the Pacific Ocean. With its beautiful black volcanic sand, and wild wild seas. It was so nice to hear the sounds of waves crashing. It’s been such a long time since i’ve walked in white wash.

We spent the next couple of days doing little else but sleeping, reading and well … that was pretty much it. We said goodbye to Sparkles on Thursday and by Friday, we were on our way to the Cosigüina Peninsula. The possibility of hiring a dugout canoe had piqued our interest, and we heard about a place to stay called Rancho Tranquilo.

Not the name I would have picked for it.

Running up that hill

Last Monday, we had our second last day of class. We had a paper and a portfolio to turn in the next day, but I managed to get 99% of it done by the time London Mike bowled in from San Andres that afternoon.

I had somehow managed to score myself a ‘job’ hosting trivia up at the Irish pub and I was due to start at 7, so I made arrangements to meet him beforehand for dinner & drinks.

I was having a post-class bevy the week before, minding my own business, when I got the gig. I got talking to the bartender who suggested I stick around for trivia that night. I mentioned that I used to host a night in Sydney, the boss overheard me & asked me, “Would you like to host ours next week?”

Sure. Why not.

He gave me a one pager which answered most of my questions. I asked him how much he’d pay me. He said he’d pay me with a dinner and all I could drink. I laughed and asked him if he knew I was Australian. We shook hands, and that was that.

London Mike and I had met in San Ignacio Belize, had met up again in Flores (in the north of Guatemala) and had kept in touch while we both studying. Sometimes when you meet people on the road, they remind you of friends back home and it instantaneously feels familiar. It’s like that with Mike, who I had nicknamed Sparkles. We were both looking forward to catching up and letting our hair down a bit.

It was a pretty international crowd at Riley’s and they got rowdier & rowdier as the night went on, but it was a fun night. Sparkles pitched in with the scoring and music round, so it was an easy night for me. I drank like drinking was a sport, and I was representing Australia. We stayed until stumps. Sparkles walked me to my door and stumbled off into the distance to his hotel.

On Tuesday, I woke up with a raging hangover the size of a Whopper burger. I only just scraped through that last day of school, and somehow managed to finish all my work.

I called Sparkles, when I knocked off. He was having a social in a nice little courtyard bar with Dave – an Aussie bloke he’d bonded with during a small bus crash up north. I met them for a beer. We later met another one of Sparkle’s mates on a rooftop bar, a young Scottish lad by the name of Cameron, who would come to make a really big impression on me in a very short space of time. We ended up in the bar where Shelby sells shots on Ladies’ Night. You can get a plate of nachos about the size of a horse’s head at Monoloco’s. I kid you not. And damn good they are, too. So we did. Many beers later and I have to say I don’t really remember much of the night.

I collected Sparkles on Wednesday morning, we went to the markets to get some stuff for dinner, and then went for a walk up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). I can see it from my lil casa. It’s lit up at night, providing a nifty navigational point if you’re really drunk. I’m sure that’s not what it was designed for, but it’s come in handy a couple of times. There’s a great vista of the city from up there. It was a cracker of a day, so we decided to go back to the Sky Cafe to get the photos we missed the day before. We ambled about a bit more and then went our separate ways for a few hours.

I had him and my lovely teacher, now neighbour (just call him Stalker Phil) over for a roast dinner. Phil’s from Watford and there’s not a lot of English folk here, so I thought he might appreciate Mike’s company and a traditional English meal. I did a bloody good job of it, even if I do say so myself and we had a very civilised night.

Thursday, Sparkles and I were up at 6 to climb Pacaya, an active volcano about 1 & ½ hrs drive from here. After being dormant for a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. The last time was in May last year. It rises to an elevation of 2,552m which is just slightly higher than Mt Kosciusko, NSW.

I leaned in to talk with Sparkles at one point on the bus trip in, and all I could smell was booze. I don’t think I smelt much better, truth be told.

It was a hard 1 & ½ hour hike up a pretty steep incline. I was bringing up the rear of our group, huffing & puffing and behind me were about ½ dozen caballeros – basically dudes with horses. The word translates to gentlemen in Spanish, but they were pissin’ me off by breathing down the back of my neck and asking me if I wanted a “taxi” the whole freakin way. As much as I would have loved to have jump on one, I knew I would regret it if I did. The only way you’d get me on one of those things is if I was with a particular group of friends and we were in fancy dress. You know who you are.

I made it. And it was totally worth it. Even though, we didn’t have the clearest day, it was simply stunning in a very surreal way. It was like standing on another planet. Volcanic ash is like rough, rocky black sand. There was a remarkable amount of tenacious greenery growing. Smoke billowed from natural potholes. We climbed into a big one and it was like stepping into a natural sauna in the cloudy chill cloaking the mountain. We toasted marshmallows, and breathed in the sharp crisp air.

I had an afternoon kip, and later that night, met up with Phil, Sparkles and Cameron and a few others at Gaia – a gorgeous hookah bar with lush cushions and beautiful decor. We had a few drinks and easy conversation, while an awesome local band played. Albeit too loudly. But hey, it’s Latin America – they don’t do ambience here.

Friday afternoon, Sparkles, Cameron and I had a very cultural afternoon. We stopped into La Merced, which is a building I’ve walked past nearly every day. It used to be an old monastery, which was built in the 1700s. Outside, there are all these intricate white religious carvings, niched into the happy yellow walls. Inside is surprisingly massive and the courtyard features the largest water fountain in Antigua. From the top terrace, you’ll get a great view of Volcán de Fuego, which you can see almost everywhere from this pretty little city. But not like this.

We then walked up to a place called Casa Santa Domingo, a glorious old hotel which is situated in the stupidly beautiful grounds of another monastery. We wondered around for a while, oohing and ahhing at the gardens and the statues
and the art and the relics and the pretty Scarlet Macaws, which are kinda like rainbow lorikeets but bigger and brighter.

From there, we got a ride in a fancy golf cart to a place called El Tenedor del Cerro (which translates to “the fork on the hill”). It’s essentially a wedding reception venue / high-end restaurant, but the reason we went there is because the place offers what has to be the best views of the city, and all throughout the grounds is this eclectic collection of completely unexpected weird-arse large-scale sculpture by lauded local artists. We spent a good couple of hours there, taking photos and fooling around.

We missed the return shuttle so I flagged down a fancy car to hitch a ride back down the hill. The wife of the Guatemalan driver was an American lady, all decked out in jewels. I asked her for her story and she told us she had been living here on-and for some 30 odd years. Her mother was a missionary who took in 58 orphans and gave them a home. She told us she was still in contact with many of them. Amazing story right there in a 15 min drive. Awesome stuff.

We parted ways for a bit of downtime. The boys had to pack as they were both leaving the next day. Cameron back home to pick up his studies back in Scotland. And Sparkles was headed for Honduras. We met up one last time at Monoloco with all their mates. Many beers and many silly photos later, I bid my farewell to them both rather unceremoniously, given how much I had enjoyed their company. It’s very likely Sparkles & I will be able to link up again in Nicaragua. and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron rocks up on my doorstep one day.

I’ve spent the last two days just chilling out, mucking around on my new netbook, listening to music, watching movies, cooking meals and drinking wine. I did venture out yesterday afternoon for a tasty Asian meal and a poke around a contemporary artist’s workshop, but apart from that – it’s been
pretty quiet since the boys left town. Which has been fine by me…

Don’t stop Belizing

Caye Caulker is small: about 8km long x 2km wide with a population of around 1300 people. You walk down the street once – you’ve just about covered the whole island and ‘lmost everyone knows who you are.

Here, they’re a mix of Mestizo, Garifuna and Creole people which makes for an interesting mix of looks, food, and talk. English is the official language but Kriol is spoken by roughly 70% of the people. It’s a fascinating language – a pidgin english with Caribbean influences, born in the times of slavery for the purposes of discreet communication. To my ear, I could hear Spanish and Afrikaans influences. It has a real poetic ghetto beat to it, and if you listen carefully, du con konprann wot di sahin moun (or something like that).

I loved it so much, I ended up staying nearly a week… there’s not a hell of a lot to do on Caye Caulker. But that’s the whole point.

It’s got one main strip with a few cafs, mini markets, shops and bars… It’s all dirt roads and most folk get around by bike or on foot. Hardly anyone wears shoes. There’s a couple of mopeds, golf carts and cars – but really, where’s to be in that much of a hurry?

When I wasn’t doing nothing, I was sharing stories with the locals. Belizeans, I have found to be very interested to know more about where you’re from, what your heritage is, a bit about your story and they’re open to sharing the same.

* * *

On the Wednesday, I dived the world-famous Great Blue Hole. A vertical cave near the middle of Lighthouse Reef, an atoll which lies about 70km from the mainland. It was brought to the world’s attention by my childhood crush, Jacques Costeau in 1971.

It’s nearly a perfect circle and is more than 300m across and 124m deep at its lowest point. It’s the depth that gives off the dark blue color you see in aerial photos of the site.

The trip out there took 2 hours on a much bigger boat than the one that took us out to the whale sharks, so it was a much more gentle ride. The boat had a mattress out on the front deck which I thought was quite amusing. The chillout zone perhaps? I was lying there for no more than a couple of minutes, enjoying the solitude when one of the DMs, Mr Nicaragua stopped by for a chat. Hmmm.

We got to the site, got our briefing and geared up. There are are a few different ledges in the hole at depths of 21, 49, and 91m. We descended against a wall towards the second one, getting to a depth of 40m in under 3 minutes, which is pretty quick-going and means you need to be able to equalize quickly.

The site was filled with these huge limestone stalactites dramatically descending from overhangs. We navigated around and through them while closely watching the most intimidating Caribbean Reef Sharks which were about 2-3m long, stalking through murky waters not far below. I’ve never seen sharks like these guys before. Most sharks I’ve come across are completely bored or very friendly. These sharks were circling, eyeing us off hungrily. I must admit, I was a bit scared.

To be honest, it wasn’t the fishiest or prettiest dive I’ve done… Deeper waters mean less light, less colours. The deeper you go, the less time you can spend underwater because you chew through your air.

But this overwhelming sense of how ancient and enormous the earth is, overcame me. I was awestruck. Suddenly i felt really small and childlike.

I found this on another site, which sums it up really well: “Hovering amongst the stalactites, you can’t help but feel humbled by the knowledge that the massive formation before you once stood high and dry above the surface of the sea eons ago. The feeling is enhanced by the dizzying effect of nitrogen breathed at depths. The water is motionless and the visibility often approaches 200 feet (60m) as you break a very noticeable thermocline.”

Before i knew it, our time was up, and we started ‘climbing’ the wall, ascending slowly. The dive had lasted no more than 30-something minutes.

Most times when you come up from an extraordinary (or even just great) dive, there’s a lot of excited chatter about who saw what and a bunch of questions to the DMs. It was strangely still on deck… I think most folk, myself included, were quietly recounting and storing in their minds what they had just witnessed… A polaroid development of a memory, if you will.

We did another 2 dives that day, one at Half Moon Caye and the other at The Aquarium at Long Caye – both were amazing but totally eclipsed by the magnitude of the first dive. I couldn’t even tell you what i saw. It was a long boat ride home with the two motors alternatively giving out, and the crew scrabbling around to fix them. A bunch of us laid out front on the mattress in the sun, sharing around the rum punch and a bit of banter.

That night I had drinks and dinner with Mr Nicaragua who had asked me out in between dives. I’m telling you, the blokes over here do not waste any time. He was my age, single enough, a good conversationalist and a lot of fun. We later went to the local reggae club which was playing dancehall and punta rock. A lot of fun. I ambled on home, kicking up the dirt and talking Spanish to stray dogs on the way. There was a part of me that was a little bit sad for some strange reason. I really can’t tell you why. It had been one of the best days of my life.

Wed 10 August